Datuk Dr Jacob Thomas is committed to keeping healthcare standards high in Malaysia


Datuk Dr Jacob Thomas was appointed as the Joint Commission International Board chairman early this year, the first Malaysian to hold this post. — Photos: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

Mounted against a wall in Datuk Dr Jacob Thomas’ office in Ara Damansara Medical Centre is a large display of awards and keepsakes he has collected from around the world.

Each item tells a story. When asked which ones are the most memorable, the group medical advisor of Ramsay Sime Darby Health Care (RSDH) holds up a small pin which has “Vice President of the United States” engraved on it.

“This was given to me by a member of the U.S. Secret Service from when former Vice President Al Gore visited Malaysia in 1998. We were near the helipad on the roof of Subang Jaya Medical Centre, which was the assigned hospital for his visit,” recalls Dr Jacob, who was at the time, the executive director of the hospital, and would later be appointed CEO.

In the following years he would rise up the ranks, achieving many career milestones and receiving numerous accolades, his latest being his appointment as the Joint Commission International Board (JCI) chairman in January this year.

The first Malaysian to hold this post, Dr Jacob has been a member of the board since 2014.

Recognised as the gold standard in hospital accreditations, JCI is a division under The Joint Commission, said to be the world’s most trusted name in accreditation.

JCI represents a worldwide consensus on quality patient care that reflects advanced healthcare practices and delivery trends that enable organisations to be high performers.

From ensuring hospital machinery is working efficiently to performing checks on staff, JCI does a thorough survey of hospitals hoping to gain accreditation.

The wall of memories and keepsakes in his office is something of a testament to the much-loved and respected figure many know Dr Jacob to be. — Photos: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The StarThe wall of memories and keepsakes in his office is something of a testament to the much-loved and respected figure many know Dr Jacob to be. — Photos: RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

“JCI is a body which checks all your credentials, ” explains Dr Jacob. “How do you make sure your patients are safe, how infection in the hospital is controlled, this was something which they started doing which got more and more popular.”

“There are bodies who do this locally, for example Malaysian Society for Quality and Health which is a Malaysian accreditation body, among others.”

“The role of JCI is to make sure patients are safe, that the hospital has good practices, when a patient complains, people attend to it, and make sure that your doctors are screened, that they are competent.”

Surveys are conducted by three surveyors, who spend five days in the hospital, examining everything in every single department, from whether your X-ray machines are calibrated to whether your fire extinguishers are working.

“They check on how safe your hospital is, they look at your sprinklers and in between rooms if there is a partition in the ceiling, a smoke barrier. Before I was on the board, I’ve seen the surveyors, a team made up of a doctor, a nurse and an engineer, carrying out their work. They’ll prop a ladder up and climb up to the ceiling and look to see what is happening inside, ” explains Dr Jacob.

Being appointed chairman is an honour, says Dr Jacob.

“To be part of this, not just for me, but for the country and the hospital. It’s a big honour, not everybody gets to be chosen for this.”

“Many, many things so genuinely gave me satisfaction than when I get into something which brings attention to our region and to the country.”

A lifetime in healthcare

Keeping healthcare standards high is a passion of Dr Jacob’s, who has served in the armed forces, public and private healthcare for more than 40 years.

Today, apart from his role in RSDH, he works closely with various NGOs and government agencies to promote Malaysian Healthcare both locally and internationally, and he is also a steering committee member of the National Key Economic Areas (NKEA) for Healthcare.

Dr Jacob’s dream was to become an ENT specialist, and he was on track to pursue this ambition when life took an unexpected turn.

“I always wanted to be a surgeon. I have two elder brothers, the eldest is an eye specialist, and my late second brother was an orthopaedic surgeon, he was the head of orthopaedics for the whole of Malaysia, who passed away just after he retired.”

He was given a scholarship to work under a famous ENT surgeon in the United Kingdom and was all prepared to embark on this journey when a robbery in his home left him with severe injuries to his hand.

A small section of the many keepsakes Dr Jacob has been presented with over the years.A small section of the many keepsakes Dr Jacob has been presented with over the years.

“When my son was eight months old, five robbers broke in and as I tried to stop one from stabbing me, I caught hold of his knife, ” recalls Dr Jacob. “He pulled the knife away and left three of my fingers dangling.”

Hand surgery restored movement in one finger, but to this day two remain stiff.

“That’s how I had to give up my desire to become an ENT specialist, but when I look back now, I realise it’s God’s way of saying that that path was not for me, so I went this administrative route and I have no regrets.”

Dr Jacob is passionate about helping others in any way he can, whether it’s by recommending doctors to friends and family or by lending a listening ear to troubled souls.

“One thing that gives me satisfaction and joy is helping people. The staff are friendly with me and I greet everyone, whether you’re in housekeeping or a top surgeon, ” says Dr Jacob, who recounts an incident where he found a telephone operator crying because her husband had left her.

“She had two small children and didn’t know what to do and had nobody to talk to, and I sat with her and we talked. When I saw her years later, she said she became strong after that and her two children had graduated, I was so happy to hear that, ” recalls Dr Jacob.

“I’m a people person. Whatever I’ve done, whatever I’ve achieved, in the end if I can help somebody else or give advice, that gives me the most joy.”

He attributes this quality to his parents, who never hesitated to help others in need, even though they themselves were not well-off.

His father, an engineer, would always find time to talk to the labourers and gardeners who lived in the same neighbourhood, and would advise them on how to save money.

“We came from a poor family, as a young boy I only had one pair of shoes and if they got soaked in the rain I would have to wash them and put them on the stove to dry. We didn’t have a phone in the house and I used to watch TV in the neighbours’ house, but I’m grateful to my parents for the example they were, and for giving us an education.”

These are the values Dr Jacob and his wife, Datin Dr Indira Verghese, an eye specialist, have instilled in their two children.

“This has rubbed off from us without even teaching them. They’ve watched us, how we treat those who need help, which is something I learned from my parents.”

“For our children, we gave them an education, made sure they can stand on their own two feet, what more can you do?”

The wall of memories in his office is something of a testament to the much-loved and respected figure many know him as.

“My wife has seen all this and she told me, when you retire, please don’t bring any of this back home, ” he jokes.

For one so committed to his work, it’s hard to imagine Dr Jacob retiring.

On whether he plans to stop working in the near future, Dr Jacob quips “I’m scared to retire. The moment I retire, I’ll start rotting, ” he adds with a laugh.

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